The Immortal Craft is our new column in which we celebrate the epic lives that shaped cinema. They may no longer travel on our plane of reality, but they continue to impact the world with the art they left behind. Here is our opportunity to thank George A. Romero for inventing the zombie subgenre and refusing to let it go with The Living Dead.
Remember all those horror movie idiots you’ve screamed at over the years? “Don’t go in the basement!” “Run, fool!” “Get out of the house!” “Don’t look around that dark corner!” You would leave the theater shaking your head. No one is that dumb. The writer of this flick is lazy.
Welcome to America in 2020. Those horror movie nimrods are not fictitious fodder concocted to agitate and boil your blood. They’re your neighbors, and they vote.
Recently re-watching Night of the Living Dead, I was struck by the authenticity of Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman). He’s an angry, confused, fearful jerkwad who refuses to recognize the science gnashing for his brains. Do you think he would wear a mask during our pandemic? Hell no.
With every passing second of lockdown, the genius of George A. Romero solidifies. His films prove that he understood humanity better than most and that the zombie subgenre is the apocalyptic jail we deserve. They’re not coming to get you, Barbara. They got you, and they’ve had you for decades. When we should have been boarding our windows, we were too busy scrolling TV channels, and Twitter feeds.
“I don’t think Romero was a particularly subtle filmmaker,” says Daniel Kraus. “He tended to hit things pretty hard, and that was another thing that I adjusted my style too. I’m maybe a little more subtle than him, but in this, I was like, ‘Fuck it.’ He had points, and he liked to hammer those things home.”
Kraus is the co-author of The Living Dead, the new novel firmly rooted in the same universe as Romero’s zombie films and cobbled together from a manuscript Romero first started constructing in the early 1980s. The book represents the director off the leash, free from budgetary constraints and studio notes. Stretching over six-hundred pages, The Living Dead tracks the zombie plague from its inception to a post-apocalyptic future never before realized on film.
“When the book goes fifteen years into the future,” says Kraus, “it deals with a fascinating concept to me. Once the humans are down to a tiny little nub of survivors — there’s not really any more zombies being made because we know how to deal with them, and the zombies don’t have anybody to feed on — the zombies start dying out, rotting and returning to the earth. It’s grim, but a hopeful chance to rebuild society in a better way.”
Who doesn’t want to start from scratch, right now? We need a do-over, and the zombies are the answer.
“Romero was a pessimist, and I am too,” continues Kraus. “He spent a lot of time telling us about the downfall, but did he have any ideas about the repairing? Did he have any ideas of how we can do this better? To put it in Night of the Living Dead terms, could Romero visualize a different farmhouse of survivors that would have been able to work together? That was the question that I had to wrestle with in act three, and using what I knew about George, and my own imagination, I came up with some answers.”
About a month after Romero’s passing in 2017, Kraus received a phone call from the filmmaker’s manager. Suzanne Romero, George’s wife, wanted someone to tackle this massive unfinished manuscript. Knowing Kraus’ fantastical and horror-leaning bibliography, including multiple collaborations with Guillermo del Toro, the author seemed like an ideal candidate. Raised as a Romero obsessive, the challenge was a no-brainer (pun intended), although it did give him an anxious pause.
“I grew up on George Romero in the same way that other people grew up on Star Wars,” he says. “[The notion of completing The Living Dead] was kind of stunning. I was vaguely aware of the book existing because occasionally Romero would mention it in interviews, but to be suddenly thrust out of nowhere into a position to be a part of that universe? And to, in some ways, conclude the final chapter of it was almost absurd and a little bewildering.”
To complete the task, Kraus forced himself to construct a chronology out of the existing Romero zombie films and find a place for The Living Dead within it, which meant not just the original Romero trilogy, but the whole shebang. No matter what you think of Romero’s later-day input, their narratives are canon.
“The movies came out in a completely random order as far as timeline,” says Kraus. “If you ignore the decade shifts, as he did…the timeline is, and I have this memorized now: Night of the Living Dead, Diary of the Dead, Survival of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Land of the Dead, and Day of the Dead.”
Kraus followed the clues — sorting through notes, reading the old Dawn of the Dead novelization — and nailed down a date for when the zombie uprising occurred. And how far into our “real” timeline Romero took his story.
“He’d only gone five years into the future,” he says. “There’s a lot of untrod ground that is not handled cinematically, and a neat thing that the book does is the second act is kind of a little Russian doll where you can put the movies inside. If you wanted to, you can read the first act of The Living Dead, pause, watch all six of those films in the order I just told you, and then read the second and third acts of this book, and you can have the full Romero experience.”
The Romero Experience is all around us today. The brutal condemnation of mob mentality depicted in Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead only grows more heated and powerful with its age. While we were screaming at characters like Harry Cooper, Romero was screaming at us. Why did we not listen?
“It hurts that he’s not here to comment on all of this,” says Kraus, “because we’re living in a world he prophesized. I envy, in a way, those people who have yet to discover him, and are about to get their heads blown off, metaphorically speaking.”
The Living Dead is a warm, bloody invitation into George A. Romero’s world. It operates as the films do, using the zombie plague as a stand-in for the numerous social and political terrors consuming our daily lives, and the book highlights the grimmest and most selfish of human behavior. There is a line in the sand. Where do you want to stand?
“Socially, I still feel like horror films are so good at being at the edges,” says Kraus. “Pushing the edges, and being able to comment on what’s happening in society before it is decent to [do so] — or before mainstream Oscar bait comes in and does the same thing. Horror films do it first, and [Romero] was on the vanguard of the vanguard. The pages of the manuscript that I was given were filled with that.”
Stewing in the words and pictures of George A. Romero gives us the opportunity to reflect on how we want to behave in our apocalypse. What matters most to us? Our comfort? Our survival? Our family? Our friends? Our strangers?
We’ve spent fifty years bemoaning the thickheadedness of Harry Cooper in his basement. Let’s not become him.
The Living Dead is now available from Tor Books.